On a recent morning inside Missouri's largest state prison, a class of students patiently waited for the professor to arrive. They had a pile of books each, and a collective pile of some of society's worst offenses.
Light poured in through windows facing a courtyard that none of them will physically get beyond in a long time. It was here, sitting around a group of tables 50 feet from an execution room, where they freed their minds. Never mind the gray uniforms, the rattling keys, the chirp of a guard's radio. When Saint Louis University professor Stephen Casmier got through security, and the day's lesson in literary studies began, the men were in college.
The class of 19 inmates, a small sampling of the 30,000 offenders in the Missouri Department of Corrections system, is part of the SLU Prison Program, an effort that educators and prison reformers are watching with hopeful, yet cautious, eyes.
In 2008, SLU started offering certificates in Theology Studies at the prison. In March, it expanded to an associate of arts, a two-year degree that will take the inmates four years to finish.
"We have got to find other ways of dealing with problems in our society besides locking people up," said Kenneth Parker, a SLU theologian who directs the program. "And that means finding more rehabilitative approaches. And that's where I think private nonprofits like SLU have a role to play."
When the initial certificate was offered, the application window closed after five days — more than 300 inmates applied for 15 slots. SLU selected inmates without life sentences and those who tutored or held leadership positions in prison. There is an expectation that they will pass along what they've learned. Program leaders said there haven't been any reports of disciplinary problems in or outside of class.
The program, free to inmates, is supported by SLU, a $150,000 grant from the Hearst Foundation and other donations. The private university wouldn't disclose the program costs. SLU has also organized a speakers series at the prison and brought in best-selling authors, jazz musicians and poets. Copies of SLU's student newspaper are set to be available soon in the prison library.
More than 350 college prison programs used to operate across the country, but only a few survived after Pell grants were cut for convicts in the 1990s, according to a report by Bard College in New York, which runs a prison education program. Politically, the funding was an easy target, but scholars continue to point to studies that show education reduces recidivism — the more educated inmates are, the less likely they are to return to prison. And that can also help with the tax bill. It costs $20,863 a year to house one inmate in a Missouri prison.
"The more the education, the better off they are," said Neil Crispo, a Florida State University professor who has studied education programs in prisons. "We pay for it again if they don't get educated."